U.S.-Japan SOFA talks called useful, but no agreement reached
August 6, 2003
Even though talks between the United States and Japan on how U.S. servicemembers are handled when suspected of a crime yielded no pledges for change, both sides say the dialogue was useful.
The two sides had hoped to reach an agreement by the end of a self-imposed 45-day window — ending Aug. 1 — after sessions in Washington, Hawaii and Tokyo.
At issue is a demand by U.S. officials that Americans covered by the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement be granted the right to have an observer present during the pre-indictment process. Under Japanese law, suspects may be held for 22 days under what amounts to solitary confinement without a lawyer or other representative present during questioning by police and prosecutors.
U.S. officials also want to provide their own interpreter for suspects during questioning.
U.S. military authorities routinely escort suspects for questioning by Japanese authorities, but do not sit in during the interrogations.
Japanese officials, on the other hand, want the SOFA changed to allow for the immediate handover of military personnel once arrest warrants have been issued.
Under the current SOFA, the U.S. military is not legally bound to hand over suspects to Japanese police until they are indicted, though Japanese police do have immediate jurisdiction of any servicemember arrested outside the military bases.
According to a Pentagon statement summarizing the talks, both sides acknowledged the four meetings had been useful in “deepening each other’s understanding of their respective positions.”
“Although both sides expended considerable effort to refine and explain their respective proposals, substantial differences continue to exist,” a State Department spokesman said Friday in Washington.
“The two sides continue to study each other’s proposals and will report the outcome of the series of meetings to their respective senior officials for the consideration of future steps,” he added.
The 45 days of discussion began June 18, when U.S. officials agreed to the pre-indictment surrender of a Marine lance corporal charged with rape on Okinawa. The suspect, Jose W. Torres, 21, pleaded guilty to raping a 19-year-old Okinawa woman.
Under the current SOFA, the two countries have an understanding that servicemembers charged with “heinous” crimes — such as rape or murder — could be turned over before they are indicted in a Japanese court.
In the past, U.S. officials have made the requests to have an observer present on a case-by-case basis.
“Now we want to make it standard procedure in all cases,” a State Department spokeswoman said when the talks began in Tokyo. The United States also wants any statements made by suspects without a U.S. observer or interpreter present to be inadmissible at trial.
The change would give Americans rights that Japanese citizens do not have.
The talks will continue at a future date, said Hatsuhisa Takashima, a spokesman for Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Although both governments have made their utmost efforts, the gap is yet to be filled,” Takashima said Monday. “However, it was not a break-off. Both governments will continue to work on the issue, including how and when to resume the talks.”
But even though no agreement was reached, the talks still had value, said Masaaki Gabe, professor of international relations at the University of the Ryukyus.
“Now that everyone’s eyes are on this issue, cooperation between the two sides will be strengthened,” Gabe said. “Japanese police will be more cautious when questioning a servicemember, so that there would be no claim from the U.S. side about the human rights of the suspect being violated.”
Gabe said the United States was taking a hard stand on the issue because of its increasing military involvement around the globe.
“The Pentagon does not want to expose their troops to situations where their human rights are threatened,” he said.
Gabe said both governments tacitly agreed to at least one thing: “Both do not wish to make drastic changes to the present arrangement,” he said.
Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.